by Jonathan Todd
Whether at Eton or Haverstock a lack of homework catches up with pupils. This homework might involve putting flesh on the bones of One Nation Labour’s audacious land grab for the political space created by the withering of the Tory left. Or it might be more hands on: ensuring the cogs of government turn quickly enough for welfare and education reform to deliver the substance of national competitiveness.
David Cameron has often seemed curiously devoid of purpose as Prime Minister. His conference speech crafted one. His argument is that to compete in a world of rapidly rising powers all Britons who can work should work – hence, the need for welfare reform – and no Britons should have substandard skills – thus, the justification for schools reform.
His economic argument is no longer simply about the immediate need to reduce the deficit but one that binds in his key domestic reforms into a longer-term platform for economic renaissance. It would be short-sighted to deny the coherence of this argument.
But soon what Cameron says will matter less than what he has been able to do.
Will universal credit get Britain working or will it be a complete catastrophe? Will free schools make as big a difference to education standards as Michael Gove thinks they will?
Delivery on welfare and education has assumed particular importance due to the roles that Cameron has assigned to them in his story of renewed competitiveness. But across the piece this parliament has moved beyond the introduction of major reforms. We’ll soon see whether they live up to the billing that the government has given them.
Will the Lansley reforms achieve anything like enough for the Tories to be able to credibly attack on the NHS before the general election or will they be the unmitigated nightmare that Andy Burnham has insisted? Will police commissioners bring a dose of reform to the most unreformed part of the public sector or will the police federation see Andrew Mitchell’s resignation as confirmation of their capacity to resist what they wish to resist?
It was often said following the departure of Andy Coulson that Cameron’s Downing Street lacked an Alastair Campbell figure. The more urgent need now is an effective Michael Barber type.
Cameron has frequently been described as more a chairman than a chief executive to his government. He was said to be slow to grasp the implications of Lansley’s reforms and to have had misgivings about cutting the 50p tax rate. But he let Andrew and George bash on anyway, like a non-exec distracted by the non-appearance of the drinks tray. Such a hands-off approach will no longer do.
Making the best of the reforms that he has introduced requires constant engagement and firm management. More than one man – already frazzled by the demands upon him – will be able to provide alone. He needs to get something like Barber’s Delivery Unit up and running if he is to seek a majority off the back of anything more than cuts, shambles and scare stories about Labour.
The odds are stacked against Cameron. Reforms of the ambition that he is attempting are always tough to deliver. But his cuts create a particularly difficult context, both in terms of available resources and, due to pay restraint and redundancies, how well disposed those that he is asking to secure the reforms feel towards him. Cameron has compounded these problems by attacking the public servants that he needs to work with him.
All of these factors make it likely that we have not seen the last shambles of this parliament. Universal credit is a prime candidate to go spectacularly wrong. Its dependence upon a large-scale computer system has caused Margaret Hodge to flag it as a “train crash waiting to happen”.
When this train crashes Labour will face a choice. Blame the driver for taking us somewhere we never should have gone (“evil Tories”) or the designers for building a faulty train (“incompetent Tories”)?
Burnham’s insistence that Lansley’s bill would be repealed under a Labour government amounts to the former. Welfare is more politically complicated. The scars on Liam Byrne’s back mark the hard yards of getting the party to support the principles informing universal credit. These scars will count for nothing when IDS’ train crashes if, as he will be urged, he attacks the Tories as evil, rather than incompetent.
Part of Miliband’s homework is to decide whether he wants to attack the Tories as evil or incompetent – or perhaps evil in some areas (e.g. health) and incompetent in others (e.g. welfare). And fortify those who should attack the Tories for incompetence against internal party pressures to attack base motives, not broken methods.
Miliband’s homework also includes developing One Nation Labour from an intelligent slogan into the worked out programme that Mary Riddell has begun to sketch. This is unlikely to succeed as a centrist project if he submits to the leftist instinct to slam the Tories as evil at every turn.
Both Miliband and Cameron have so much to do that they will find two and half years no time at all – even if some weeks, like the last one, might feel like a lifetime.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist